Hiring and the halo-effect trap

The halo effect is a term coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike to describe the way people subconsciously bias themselves to like other people.

In a hiring context, it refers to the tendency to let an interviewee’s good qualities or at least those we approve of, smudge our perception of their less attractive ones.

In short, we give them a halo that might just be hiding their horns. Our job as interviewers is to look for the reasons for hiring them and the risks in doing so. The halo effect blinds us to the risk.

This can be based on virtually any positive assessment we make of them or preference we might have, including gender, race, ethnicity, height, looks, hair colour, accent, hobbies, values, behaviours or attitudes.

Why do we do this?

We tend to like people who are like us, and who we think will like us in return. Right or wrong, we are genetically programmed to value similarity and fear difference or unfamiliarity, so we show bias towards candidates who remind us of others with whom we’ve had positive experiences.

Second, once we’ve decided we like someone, our brains go about finding reasons to continue liking them. It’s called ‘confirmation bias’ – we like to be right because it improves our sense of confidence in our own efficacy.

How do we stop this from impacting our hiring decisions?

There are several ways to make the hiring process more robust:

  • Make sure that different people handle different levels of the selection process, with one team screening resumes and another team conducting interviews.
  • Have at least three people on a hiring panel; keep each person’s ratings secret from the others, and avoid discussion.
  • Conduct several interviews – a preliminary one, a full panel interview, and a work interview or a short trial during which the person is paid to work with the team for a few days.
  • Have an off-team or independent interviewer there who has no reason to ‘halo’ the candidate, as they won’t be working with them.
  • Make your screening and testing process rigorous, particularly in regard to key performance indicators (KPIs).

The halo effect can mean making the wrong choice and missing out on the best candidate or even ending up with a real problem. Your best defence is awareness of your own biases.

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